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"Gretchen! Pick up the phone!" My best friend's voice came from my answering machine. "Stop screening your calls. I know you're there!"
I groaned and dislodged the washcloth from over my eyes. Slowly I let one hand emerge from beneath the water, reaching over the edge of the tub for the phone.
"Sandy." It was a statement. I said it again. "Sandy, what?"
Even when I was prepared for it, her enthusiasm was startling. And tonight, she was excited. Oh, dear.
"Gretchen, I've got fabulous news! It happened by accident. I could hardly believe it and--well, the upshot is, I've found you a job!"
I'd been listening with one ear, concentrating on the rise and fall of the bubbles as I took deep, even breaths. Now, though, I sat up straight so quickly some water sloshed onto the floor.
"No? Really? Tell me!"
The air felt cold on my wet skin, but I hardly registered the goosebumps. A job! Any job! Oh, hallelujah!
"Okay." Sandy inhaled audibly before launching into an explanation. "I was working late at the university. We're doing that famous authors lecture series, remember? Anyway, I got to chatting with Elaine from World Affairs, and she told me about this guy who used to be a professor at the school. He quit and wrote a best seller! Lived in Europe for a while, I guess. She thinks it was in Tuscany. Or Vienna. She couldn't recall."
"Yes, anyway, he's back in the area, working on a new book and he's looking for a secretary slash research assistant. Naturally, I thought of you. It would be perfect. I have his phone number right here. Got a pen?"
"Actually, no. I'm in the tub." Itucked the phone into my neck and stood up, reaching for a towel and dripping. "Give me a minute. Tell me more. What's his name?"
There was a pause on the line. "His name? Sure. It's John David Honeycutt." She said it fast, making it one long word.
But I wasn't fooled.
"Wait a minute. Honeycutt as in The Honeycutts?" I gave the words capital letters.
The Honeycutt family was the Midwest equivalent of the Kennedys. Rich, glamorous and peppered with scandal, the Honeycutts lived very public lives. Even if you didn't want to know about them, you did. It was difficult to avoid the headlines and the gossip.
"I don't remember any Honeycutt who was a serious scholar," I told Sandy. "A couple of lawyers, the congressman and that one who tried to be a singer. No professors."
"No, this one's sort of a second stringer. His father was brother to the really famous one--old Bill Honeycutt. That makes the professor cousin to the lawyers and the congressman and the singer." Sandy had obviously been working overtime getting the family tree straight. Now, she pushed on. "So, got that pen handy? I'll give you the number."
I knotted the tie on my robe, cinching it tighter than it needed to be. "Hmmm." I was thoughtful, wondering what it would be like to work for minor royalty. Could be good, could be bad. Definitely interesting. I moved down the hall to the kitchen and my notepad. "Okay, shoot."
She rattled off the digits quickly, then repeated them in slow, even cadence to make sure I'd gotten it right.
Clasping the paper as if it were a winning lottery ticket, I offered up thanks. "Sandy," I promised, "if this works out, I'll take you to lunch at the overpriced restaurant of your choice."
She chuckled, then scoffed. "You don't have to do that. Just pay me the money you owe. I believe it now comes to--"
"Yes, yes," I cut her off. "I know how much." There is nothing more humbling than borrowing money from your best friend. Which brought another question to mind.
"Hey, Sandy, how much does this job pay? Any idea? I suppose because the family's so rich, they'll be really cheap," I speculated, drawing dollar signs all around the phone number.
"Oh, I don't know about that, Gretchen." Ever the optimist. "But, in any event, beggars can't be choosers." When I didn't reply, she added, "No offense."
I shrugged, only mildly irritated by her succinct description of my life's situation. "None taken. It's just that the truth hurts."
"Oh, Gretch!" she gushed with sympathy. "It's not so bad. You got a raw deal, that's all. And that job was never right for you anyway. Too stifling for someone creative. It was just a matter of time before you quit, you know that." A pause. "But they fired you first."
I shut my eyes, held them closed for a few long seconds. Ancient history. This was all ancient history now. My telemarketing career had been brief. It turns out the company really did monitor calls for quality, and I was judged to be too honest for my own good. But I just couldn't talk folks into spending money I knew they didn't have. "Maybe you should sleep on your decision," I'd tell them and that was definitely not company policy. I changed the subject.
"Maybe I'll give this guy a call right now, before it gets too late."
"Good idea." Sandy seemed to welcome the transition. "I'll let you go. Let me know how it turns out, okay?"
"Well, of course! And Sandy?"
She could tell I was sincere by the tone of my voice. I did my best to convey how grateful I was, not just for the job lead, or the emergency loan, but for everything she'd always done and been for me. We'd been friends for twenty years, since the first day of kindergarten. She knew me better than I knew myself, and she knew I wasn't one for elaborate emotional displays.
Now, she fluffed off my moment of heartfelt honesty. "You'll get the job, Gretch," her assurance came in a rush. "Who knows, maybe you'll even get Honeycutt!"
"What does that mean?"
"I asked Elaine. He's single!" She was giggling when she hung up the phone.
Standing at the mirror, I combed the tangles from my hair, wondering where Sandy got her romantic notions. Honestly, she was hopeless, always fixing people up--or trying to--always falling too hard and getting her heart broken. But she kept bouncing back from every knight who turned into a cad and every dreamboat that gave her nightmares.
Not me. Once was enough. True love came, swept me away with the force of a rain-swollen river--then washed me up onto the rocks. It had happened a good five years ago during my last semester of college, but the memory was still raw around the edges. I flinched now as his name flashed through my mind. That name I never wanted to hear again. It was better, I thought, to think about another name.
John David Honeycutt.
He hadn't been home when I'd called a few minutes before, so I'd left a message that had probably sounded a little too desperate. Maybe he'd decide it was merely enthusiasm making me talk too fast.
"Yes, really," I said aloud, grimacing at my reflection. "Well, get a grip at the interview--if you get one. This could be a golden opportunity!"
My image nodded back at me, and I noticed a faint blush in my cheeks. High excitement at the prospect of gainful employment. I'd have to make sure it was there if and when I met Mr. Honeycutt. The hint of color made me look eager and responsive. And that unexpected spark in my eyes brought green into the deep brown. I blinked, looking again and feeling pleased.
I'd put my hair up, twirling the shoulder-length locks around my fingers until they coiled into a semblance of a French twist. I'd add my real gold earrings. The new red blouse from the discount mall would bring out the red in my brown hair, and I'd wear the black skirt that made me look taller than five foot six.
It was easier to decide what to wear than what to say.
"Why do you want this job?" I could hear him asking that standard interview question.
How wonderful it would be to be honest. "I don't want this job! I don't want any job! I'm an artist. I want to devote my time to my art. Follow my heart! Use my talent! I want to paint!" I was shaking my fists, raising my voice, repeating out loud the thoughts I'd had a million times.
But artists starve in their garrets, next to playwrights and novelists. Truly, I was thinner than I'd been four months ago, when my last job had ended unexpectedly.
Clearing my throat, I practiced a more tempered response. "I've always had an eye for detail." Well, that was certainly true enough. "I have a great fondness for history and recognize its importance to the present." Ditto, there. "And I'm ready for a new challenge in my life!"
"I see." John David Honeycutt sounded skeptical. He tapped the pages of my hastily assembled resume against the gleaming desktop, and I struggled not to fidget.
So far, it seemed to be going well. I'd arrived at his campus office early, then waited half an hour for him to turn up.
"I'm sorry I'm late, Ms. Waller. Meeting ran long." He'd been speaking as he approached me down a long corridor.
I assured him that it was no problem and was secretly pleased to have him at a momentary disadvantage.
While he shifted books and folders to one arm and unlocked the office, I took a good look at this scholarly member of the fabulous Honeycutts. He was on the younger side of thirty-five, I'd say. Average height--maybe six feet. Just a bit too thin for my taste. The gray blazer he wore looked expensive--well cut and in a wonderful fabric. His khaki-colored slacks had a crease that could cut paper, and I wondered wildly if he had a personal valet or merely wielded a mean iron. He had black hair, wavy and thick, and it came down over the collar of his shirt in an artfully haphazard style.
"After you." He stepped back, letting me enter the office first, then moved around me to the big wooden desk that dominated the room. The materials he held thumped onto the desktop, joining other stacks of books and papers.
I seated myself in the only other chair in the room without waiting for him to direct me. For several moments I sat in silence as he rifled through mail and cleared a space for my resume directly in front of him.
"All right." He adjusted his tie, sat down. "All right."
Our conversation had followed the pattern of all interviews. Qualifications, references, experience. I certainly had plenty of all three, and I'd worked on my resume one full day to reflect that.
"You have a degree from this very university, I see." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Art history. That could be useful, I suppose." He wasn't speaking to me then, I knew, so I just nodded my head.
After that he tuned me back in, asking that "why" question. When I gave my well-rehearsed reply, he accepted it without question, scribbling a note in the margin of the paper he held. Dropping his pencil, he sat back. His arms stretched up overhead, and I heard several vertebrae settle back into place, bringing forth a sigh of contentment from John David Honeycutt. When he smiled he revealed two very even rows of very white teeth. Almost too many teeth for one mouth, it seemed at the time to my dazzled eyes.
"Well, Gretchen," he paused. "May I call you Gretchen? Right, then. Well, Gretchen, if you want the job, it's yours." He held up one hand when I opened my mouth to accept. "I know you don't really have any clerical experience, but that should be the easy part of this job. Research skills are more essential just now. As long as you can peck out the letters on the keyboard, that should be sufficient."
My inward sigh of relief was nearly audible. That was a standard I could meet. I jumped in. "When can I start?"
"Tomorrow too soon?"
"Great, then. We'll have a day of orientation here, then head for Mill Hollow."
Relaxed now, he swiveled back and forth in his chair, explaining in a casual tone, "All the family papers are in storage at Mill Hollow. That's the family estate in the north woods." Our eyes met. "I'm sure you've heard of it."
Indeed, I had. Whenever the Honeycutts were in the news, the sprawling compound was mentioned. The family summered there each year. Big reunions were held on the lawns. It had been home to at least a dozen Honeycutt nuptials over the years. And then, of course, there'd been the scandals, including the biggest one, which stretched unspoken between us now. I certainly wasn't about to bring it up and hardly expected him to. But John David Honeycutt turned out to be a man of surprises.
"I've told you I'm planning to do a book. A biography on my family." He waited for my nod. His lips, wide and full, pressed together for an instant, revealing an emotional strain. "And that's true. I do plan to write the definitive work. But, also," he leaned forward, elbows on the desktop, a look of urgency in his eyes, "I plan to clear my grandfather of that murder charge."